Beach: An Owner's Manual

Rob Temple
Beach: An Owner's Manual

Everyone can learn some lessons from the sand.

On Thursday July 27th, Orrin H. Pilkey and his son Charles O. Pilkey we scheduled for an afternoon book signing at Books to be Red. The Current’s editor being temporarily out of state, I was assigned to cover the event. When I arrived shortly after it was supposed to begin, I found the door open, the lights out, and a line of folks on the porch waiting to have their books signed by the two authors who sat sweltering at a card table at one end of the porch. I had expected to hear a lecture but the power outage that had occurred before dawn had just begun its monkey-wrenching of the best-laid plans.

I purchased a book and got in line. “Who’s it for?” Orrin asked me when it was my turn.

“It’s for the Ocracoke Library,” I replied. (Turns out the Current’s editor is also co-president of Friends of the Library).

“Where is the library anyway?” he asked.

“Right over on Back Road on the other side of the school,” I said.

“I used to bring high school students over here and the school would let us camp out in the gym. That was until some of the local kids starting bringing them beer and then that was the end of that!” he said. 

Beach: An Owner's Manual

We’ve had Orrin Pilkey’s How to Read a North Carolina Beach on our living room bookshelf since it first came out in 2004. I read it right through when we first acquired it – couldn’t put it down – and have used it as a reference on numerous occasions since. I really wanted to chat with them but due to the line behind me I felt I had to move on.

Before meeting these two gentlemen I wasn’t even aware that they were father and son but the look of these grizzled yet scholarly beach bums just suggested to me they were of my tribe. Turns out I didn’t know the half of it. Pilkey the younger, like yours truly, spent some time living in Japan and more time living aboard a sailboat cruising the East Coast. No doubt we’d have more than rum bottle’s worth of yarns to share! Of course I learned that as soon as I got home by perusing the “About the Authors” piece inside the back cover.

That was Thursday.

Beach: An Owner's Manual

After a sweltering night with no lights and no a/c, my daughter and I awoke early on Friday morning, took cold showers and headed up the beach for a long-planned movie, dinner and bowling date before she returns to college. I took the Pilkeys’ new book, Lessons from the Sand as well as Orrin’s earlier book to compare and contrast on our ferry rides. The first thing that struck me about the new book was that it is slightly larger and beautifully illustrated with color photographs and drawings. While the new book's information is otherwise very similar to the old, it is put forth as a teaching tool. The subtitle is Family-friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach. And each chapter is a separate lesson plan.

It was beginning to look like the power outage might be with us for a while and, although the young’uns and I could probably sweat through a few more dark, hot, mosquito-y nights, we knew our esteemed editor would be challenging company under such conditions. And she was due to return before the crisis was likely to be over. Caroline and I purchased a hefty generator capable keeping both our house and groceries cold.

As soon as we got it home, with the help of her brother, I hauled it out to the back deck, quickly consulted the owner’s manual and then filled it with oil and gas and fired that sucker up!

Then by the light of the generator, I continued to read Lessons from the Sand. I sorta had the new generator in the back of my mind and then it struck me: this book is nothing more and nothing less than an owner’s manual for the beach!  Here I am an old guy who has spent more time than most people on North Carolina beaches, thoroughly enjoying them but hardly understanding them. Before starting my new generator I didn’t really have time to thoroughly familiarize myself with it. I read the warnings enough not to burn it up by running it without oil or asphyxiate us all by running it indoors. But beyond that I made do. 

It occurred to me that that’s how most of us use the beach. We know what we want to gain from it so we rush with our coolers, umbrellas and boogie boards to take advantage. But the more I read Lessons from the Sands I began to realize that there’s a lot about beaches we would do well to understand. Not only for our deeper appreciation of them but also for their own protection.

Sample interior pages of "Lessons from the Sand."
Sample interior pages of "Lessons from the Sand."

A little tidbit I gleaned from the new book: why it’s not a great idea to feed gulls. From my earliest youth one of my great joys in arriving at the Outer Banks was to feed the gulls crackers from the stern of the ferry and I still smile when I see tourist children delight in feeding them on the ride across Hatteras inlet. Yeah, I know – you shouldn’t feed them people food because it’s not any better for them than it is for us. It’ll just make ‘em fat and lazy. But the Pilkeys cite another reason I hadn’t been aware of: feeding them makes them cluster in large groups where they are more likely to spread diseases. Hmmm….

As I read Lessons from the Sand I felt a growing regret that it wasn’t around when I was first teaching my own young children about the beach although I suppose it’s never too late.

Like I said, it’s the owner’s (well, let’s say “user’s”) manual for the beach. Copies should be distributed to new arrivals by the hotels and rental agencies.

Just as most manuals start off with important advice on how not to kill yourself with the product, this book has a very important chapter on rip currents. I lost a friend to a rip current last summer. My only suggestion to the authors would be to put Chapter Five in bold face red letters at the very beginning of the book.

Needless (I hope) to say I like the new book. And if you ever spot one or both of the Pilkeys on the island, please give me a call. I’d love to buy ‘em a drink! 

Lessons from the Sand and How to Read a North Carolina Beach are available at Books to Be Red and other island bookshelves.



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